Canadians are salivating as another gizmo passes them by. Amazon will be selling its Kindle electronic book reader in more than 100 countries starting Oct. 19 - but not in Canada. The Kindle's failure to launch may be an annoyance to geeks and book freaks, but it highlights an emerging technological laggardness that calls for a co-ordinated response.
The Kindle is a crude execution of a beautiful idea - that any digital book, newspaper, magazine or document can be made available anywhere at any time to anyone with the right device, and access to wireless telephony. Canada may have missed getting this marvel because Amazon has not struck deals with wireless service providers.
To have reach, profitable and socially beneficial innovations such as e-books, online retailing and social networking rely on harmonious access to four realms: networks (through phone, cable and Internet service providers), hardware, software and content.
Canada is a world leader in broadband access, but with high rates, and with blocks in the latter three realms, we have not yet established the conditions for technological leadership. As with the Kindle, the iPhone was slow to come to Canada. Some mobile phone applications and popular U.S. entertainment content, like that provided by the online video outlet Hulu, are not available. As a result, Canadians are denied diversions and wider opportunities for cultural and economic innovation. Wireless e-readers in particular will expand venues for reading; e-readers equipped with touch screens (as promised by Sony and potentially Apple) could spur new forms of artistic and literary expression uniquely suited to the medium.
But merely asking for the Kindle is not an answer. Regulators, elected officials and players from the network, hardware, software and content worlds should work together on a strategy to tackle the larger problem, which involves issues of cultural sovereignty and intellectual property as well as bits, bytes and radio waves.
In the end, Margaret Atwood or Dan Brown may be better read on paper than on a screen. But the market should allow Canadian readers to decide that. In the meantime, the leaders of Canada's digital economy should work to make sure the next such gadget comes to Canada first.